The Russell Girl may bear the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” imprimatur, but thanks to a pair of impressively raw performances by Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia) and Tony winner Jennifer Ehle, this unhurried character study often seems more like a film you’d find in the Sundance lineup. The titular figure is Sarah (Tamblyn), a recent college graduate working as a Macy’s buyer in Chicago while she waits out her med-school applications. The day before she’s accepted at Northwestern, Sarah is diagnosed with leukemia and retreats to her hometown to stay with her parents, Gayle (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and Phil (Tim DeKay). Before she can tell them, however, Sarah becomes convinced her illness is cosmic payback for deeds she’s ashamed of and, reeling from depression, she makes a secret decision to forgo treatment. A parallel story follows Lorainne (Ehle), a neighbor whose crippling memories of past traumas are stirred up by Sarah’s return. As the two circle each other for most of the film, the shared source of their pain is gradually revealed.
The general tone strongly evokes Ordinary People and In the Bedroom, although The Russell Girl has much less plot than either. Ehle shrewdly opts for subtlety in a role that many actors would play as hysteric, resisting the temptation to steal scenes from Tamblyn. The younger actor, meanwhile, makes the most of the material and delivers an extremely convincing portrayal of a young person who lacks the emotional vocabulary to respond to her situation. The film ultimately feels a touch slight, like a decent short story that’s diluted when expanded into a novel, but it’s got enough substance to do good things for Tamblyn’s career.